Beckett's NY Times Obituary
December 27, 1989 - Wednesday - Late Edition
By Mel Gussow
Samuel Beckett, a towering figure in drama and fiction who altered the course of contemporary theater, died in Paris on Friday at the age of 83. He died of respiratory problems in a Paris hospital, where he had been moved from a nursing home. He was buried yesterday at the Montparnasse cemetery after a private funeral.
Explaining the secrecy surrounding his illness, hospitalization and death, Irene Lindon, representing the author's Paris publisher, Editions de Minuit, said it was ''what he would have wanted.''
Beckett's plays became the cornerstone of 20th-century theater beginning with ''Waiting for Godot,'' which was first produced in 1953. As the play's two tramps wait for a salvation that never comes, they exchange vaudeville routines and metaphysical musings - and comedy rises to tragedy. An Alternative to Naturalism
Before Beckett there was a naturalistic tradition. After him, scores of playwrights were encouraged to experiment with the underlying meaning of their work as well as with an absurdist style. As the Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote: ''After 'Godot,' plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalized, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy.''
At the same time, his novels, in particular his trilogy, ''Molloy,'' ''Malone Dies'' and ''The Unnamable,'' inspired by James Joyce, move subliminally into the minds of the characters. The novels are among the most experimental and most profound in Western literature.
For his accomplishments in both drama and fiction, the Irish author, who wrote first in English and later in French, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969.
At the root of his art was a philosophy of the deepest yet most courageous pessimism, exploring man's relationship with his God. With Beckett, one searched for hope amid despair and continued living with a kind of stoicism, as illustrated by the final words of his novel, ''The Unnamable'': ''You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.'' Or as he wrote in ''Worstward Ho,'' one of his later works of fiction: ''Try again. Fail again. Fail better.''
He wrote six novels, four long plays and dozens of shorter ones, volumes of stories and narrative fragments, some of which were short novels. He wrote poetry and essays on the arts, including an essay about Marcel Proust (one of his particular favorites), radio and television plays, and prose pieces he called residua and disjecta.
Despite his artistic reputation, his ascension was slow and for many years discouraging. He labored in his own darkness and disillusionment, the equivalent of one of the isolated metaphorical worlds inhabited by his characters. When his work began to be published and produced, he was plagued by philistinism, especially with ''Waiting for Godot,'' which puzzled and outraged many theatergoers and critics, some of whom regarded it as a travesty if not a hoax.
In no way could he ever be considered an optimist. In an often repeated story, on a glorious sunny day he walked jauntily through a London park with an old friend and exuded a feeling of joy. The friend said it was the kind of day that made one glad to be alive. Beckett responded, ''I wouldn't go that far.''
In Paris, he met James Joyce and other members of the literary and artistic set. He was not, as is commonly thought, Joyce's secretary, but he became a close friend and aide, reading to him when Joyce's eyes began to fail. Beckett's first published work was an essay on Joyce that appeared in the collection ''Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress,'' the work in progress being Joyce's ''Finnegans Wake.'' His first poem, ''Whoroscope,'' was printed in 1930.
On his 80th birthday in 1986, Beckett was celebrated in several cities. In Paris there was a citywide festival of plays and symposiums and in New York there was a week of panels and lectures analyzing his art. As usual, he kept his silence, as in the characteristic note he sent to those who approached him about writing his biography. He said that his life was ''devoid of interest.''
His last work to be printed in his lifetime was ''Stirrings Still,'' a short prose piece published in a limited edition on his 83d birthday. In it, a character who resembles the author sits alone in a cell-like room until he sees his double appear - and then disappear. Accompanied by ''time and grief and self so-called,'' he finds himself ''stirring still'' to the end.
The polycarp at Montparnasse Cemetery, March '04